Jake Gibbs is Oxford’s biggest deal

Published 12:00 pm Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Lots of people are a big deal in this small city.

We have Freeze warnings in the fall, Eli sightings, and Shepard Smith doing the Fox News from his townhouse in Oxford on occasion. We’ve had Mr. Faulkner, Mrs. Hamblett, and John Grisham.

But I learned away from Oxford, living and traveling throughout the country, that one person stands as the city’s star and legend, above all.

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Jake Gibbs, the former Ole Miss football and baseball standout who played for a decade with the New York Yankees, became a wonderful, warm source of conversation in so many cities and places that I really can’t remember them all.

One example that comes to mind, though, was in New York five or six years ago. I was working in Newsweek’s old office just off Wall Street and a colleague was a middle-aged gentleman originally from India whose family had immigrated to the United States some 50 years before. All of his years in the states had been spent in New York, so he knew a thing or two about the Yankees.

“You have heard of Jake Gibbs, haven’t you?” he asked one day.

“Well, yes,” I said. “I’ve played some golf with Jake in recent years, and have known him since I was about 5 years old. He’s one of my favorite people in the world.”

The gentleman’s jaw fell, and remained there, in awe.

“You know Jake Gibbs?”

“Well, yes, quite well. Most everybody in Oxford does. That’s Jake. If you head on down and go to the Ole Miss golf course sometime before mid-morning you can meet him, too. I can guarantee you he will speak.”

Another time I was asked to spend a few days consulting in Pennsylvania. A similar circumstance occurred. I was asked about Oxford, and Ole Miss. Soon enough, a gentleman brings up Jake Gibbs.

“He was my hero,” the man tells me, explaining how as a Yankee Jake emerged as a cult hero of sorts with fans. “He had such character.”

When I got back home the man sent me some Jake Gibbs baseball cards as a thank you gift. I still have them, of course.

It may seem odd, having baseball cards of someone you consider a friend. But Jake Gibbs was always the closest thing I had as a hero. As Ole Miss baseball coach, I watched him lead the Rebels to an SEC Championship and College World Series trip, making him a big deal long before Bianco.

Jake’s sons, Dean, Monte and Frank were around my age and peers that I have always liked and respected. I also liked and respected watching Jake as a father, with them.

Jake as an athlete was everybody’s all American, one of the greatest players in the history of SEC football. That fact still stands today, remarkably. So you can imagine the pressure on my friends growing up with a man named Jake as your father.

But the pressure did not come from Jake. They were all very good athletes themselves, exceptional by most standards, and Jake recognized that, simply encouraging them in sports and in life along the way. He would throw the ball with them, but he never pushed them. He let them become their own man, admirably.

Beyond that, Jake has been a friend to most anybody that has really loved either Ole Miss or Mississippi over the years, and accessible to all. Ask noted former sports writers like Billy Watkins or Rick Cleveland who they would walk 100 miles for on the hottest day of the year and they will tell you, no doubt, Jake Gibbs.

I mourned the loss of his wife, Patricia, several years back like the rest of Oxford. But friends let me know hat Jake was hanging tough as Jake does, buoyed by his children and their families being nearby, and still playing golf many days to keep busy.

Eating lunch at the Beacon on my first week back in town recently I caught of glimpse of Jake across the restaurant. He was talking to a friend, and I was at a meeting, so I decided to wait until another time to say hello, and reconnect with them both.

I smiled, though, knowing all those people I met over years who shared such appreciation would be giddy at Jake’s being in the house.

In Oxford though, he’s just one of us. And that’s what makes Jake Gibbs so special. He’s a big deal, but you would never know it by his actions.

David Magee is Publisher of The Oxford Eagle. Contact him at david.magee@oxfordeagle.com.